A binocular viewpoint

18 January 2021

When I first saw Jon give a presentation, he came across as a hugely erudite, thoughtful psychologist with strong views on leadership coaching. His articles and papers, encompassing careful argument, clarity of expression and a wide range of reference, only confirmed this. It was therefore a surprise to hear him describe himself as something of a rebel – and that a scepticism about authority was, perhaps, the trigger to his interest in psychology.

‘You could say I became a psychologist at the age of nine

‘I went to an English boarding school, hated it and tried to make sense of what was going on. My family were humanists but the school insisted on Sunday church attendance. Asked to explain my beliefs after being thrown out of the chapel for not singing, I copied huge chunks from Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian. The headmaster told me it was "rubbish!” Organised religion bemused me and it became clear to me that people often accept beliefs and conditions quite uncritically. This started my interests in group behaviour and in conformity.’

Jon claims that one prep schoolteacher also influenced him. ‘His name was Mr Hinks. He was ex-army, a maths teacher and the person who first offered what I came to understand as a developmental relationship. This is a form of the helping relationship which has been much discussed and researched. Mr Hinks listened with what the psychologist Carl Rogers described as the fundamental conditions: he was empathic, non-judgemental and warm. This sort of relationship is not just human: animals demonstrate it too, suggesting it has biological roots. What Freud uniquely did was build a profession on this; he decided to shut up and listen! In turn, Carl Rogers built on that insight though he disagreed with much of psychoanalytic theory. And the people who laid the foundations of coaching – John Whitmore for instance – use these ideas, though largely unacknowledged. So the sorts of relationship that coaches, psychologists, therapists and counsellors can create with their clients are nothing new: they are millennia old. Ed Schein has written a very good book about helping relationships with that title.’ 

This answer reflects Jon’s interest in the history of psychology and coaching. ‘The history of the ideas you use is important for understanding their underlying assumptions but in coach training, for instance, it is surprisingly absent.’

Jon studied philosophy and psychology in his first year at Oxford. ‘I was persuaded to do a pure experimental psychology degree after that because it was a better route into the profession. I think that was a pity. Philosophy teaches rigorous thinking and studying it would contribute something extra to psychology training, which tends to use a very restricted definition of science.’ 

Looking at the long list of readings for an essay on group psychology, Jon discovered the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion. ‘He defined a sort of listening, akin to what I’d experienced from Mr Hinks, as “listening without memory or desire”. This is what great coaches, therapists and others practice and you can relate it to contemporary techniques such as mindfulness.’ 

Jon has written about Bion’s work on unconscious processes in groups. Bion studied Army groups during the Second World War and it was one of the topics he investigated while working at the Tavistock Clinic. ‘Because of my interest in his work, I applied to the clinic to do clinical training. In fact they no longer offered courses in that area and Bion had left 30 years earlier! But I did attend his lectures later. He was and is a very influential person in my thinking. He exemplified what he called a “binocular” point of view. He believed that to understand any human behaviour you need to look at it from two perspectives, both from within and from outside, both internal and group psychology. One without the other missed half the picture. During World War II he was part of the Tavistock group of psychologists who created the War Office selection boards, what are now called assessment centres, to identify less “aristocratic”, more “group style” leaders.’

After training as a clinical psychologist at Kings College Hospital, Jon finally joined the Tavistock Clinic. ‘I trained in psychotherapy with young people at the Tavi and worked in the adolescent department. I also worked in a therapeutic community – Northgate – which was closely associated with the clinic. Unfortunately, this idea that a group and a community can have therapeutic benefits has been completely superseded by biological psychiatry.’

Jon was elected Chair of the adult department of the Tavistock Clinic. There were two Tavistock organisations. The clinic looked at the way the internal and external world affect each other in relationships: the Institute which was set up in 1947 used a systems approach to research and consult to organisations. ‘I’m part of the last generation to work at both the clinic and the Institute – which have subsequently become rather disconnected from each other – reflecting my interest in the way cultures, organisations and environments interact with the internal world of the human being. Initially, while I was working at the clinic, I also worked part-time at the Institute with one of its founders, Harold Bridger.’ 

Jon set up Tavistock Consulting which also reflects his way of thinking. ‘The Institute then tended to work primarily with larger systems with much less emphasis on individual psychology, though does so much more these days. I wanted to develop an approach which drew on Bion’s binocular perspective, an in-depth understanding of the individual in the context of group and system dynamics. I brought in Clare Huffington who was a family therapist and David Armstrong who had originally trained at the Institute, together with myself as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist to develop the “organisation in the mind” perspective to organisations formulated by Bruce Reed and others at the Grubb Institute: an approach I called “the unconscious at work”.’

‘It’s not a hard argument to relate psychology to leadership’

Jon’s route into coaching, which is a major element in his present work, is, at least partly via Organisational Role Analysis, a technique developed at the Grubb Institute in the ‘80s. ‘Coaching in business was beginning to establish itself at that time and Organisational Role Analysis was an attempt to understand a role as part of a system.’ 

I asked Jon to talk a little bit about his leadership coaching practice. ‘As I have implied, coaching techniques can be found throughout history and also in the animal kingdom. I watched this when I went to Rwanda with my family and observed a mother gorilla ‘coaching’ her offspring to pick termites out of the nest. I define coaching as the art and science of enabling another person to develop a skill. Leadership coaching helps the person understand how they can be more effective in their role. It is not mentoring – imparting specialist knowledge – so the leadership coach does not have to be an expert. But, in my view, it is a huge advantage to have experienced being a leader oneself.’

Coaching psychology and coaching are growing. ‘It’s not a hard argument to make that leaders need to understand both their individual psychology as well as the psychology of groups and organisations they lead. I use two basic models in my coaching – psychoanalysis and systems thinking. One of the areas that I’ve been especially interested in is the psychology of the work itself, so being a lawyer is very different than being an advertising executive, for example.’

What is the future of coaching and coaching psychology? ‘The more coaching  becomes a key skill for leaders the better for the world of work and the world in general. Team coaching is growing. I have mixed feelings about coaching becoming a profession since it is such a mixture of techniques, approaches and traditions. It's inevitably becoming commoditised and will split into two sectors: a high-end practice focusing on leadership and a remedial practice for those struggling in the workplace. And it will not be long before effective coaching can be delivered by artificial intelligence.’

There was much more to talk about but I asked Jon to explain his involvement in teaching and research at the Saïd Business School in Oxford. ‘I see myself as a practitioner scientist. In my view the most usable ideas from business schools come out of management practice. I view psychoanalysis in a similar light. It is strongest as a practice; you cannot understand it unless you experience it. And the same is true of coaching. It's rather shocking that coach trainees are not required to have their own personal coaching as part of their training.’


To read more about some of the ideas Jon discusses here, see:

Dopson, S. & Stokes, J. (2020). From Ego to Eco: Leadership for the 4th Industrial Revolution. Saïd Business School.

Obholzer, A. & Roberts, V. (2019). The Unconscious at Work. Routledge.

Schein, E. (2011). Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Stokes, J. (2015). Defences against anxiety in the law in D. Armstrong & M. Rutter (Eds) Social Defences Against Anxiety. Karnac.